Northern California pushes back as white nationalists plan rallies

Officials in Northern California are pushing back against planned rallies in the region this month that they say will attract white nationalists.

The Bay Area, long a hotbed for political activism, has been the site of violent clashes between right-wing and left-wing protesters since President Trump took office.

But after the violence in Charlottesville, Va., that left one counter-demonstrator dead over the weekend, officials said they want to avoid similar clashes here.

Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin characterized a demonstration set for Aug. 27 at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park as a white nationalist rally. “This rally, and its hateful rhetoric, is not welcome in Berkeley,” Arreguin said in a statement Tuesday.

“The city has not approved this gathering. It is an event organized online. No one has tried to obtain a permit, nor has one been granted,” Arreguin said of the event, set to take place in front of Old City Hall. “We are currently exploring all options,” the mayor said, adding that the event was being planned by “an amorphous group with no specific organizers.”

A Facebook page advertising the rally calls it “No to Marxism in America.” A Facebook user who posted June 19 about plans to attend the event said that “wearing sweaters or jackets might be doable, which would help concealing armor or equipment.”

“I’m going to suggest that anyone attending this event invest in at least a cheap helmet,” the person wrote, saying he was concerned that counter-protesters would throw rocks, bricks and bottles. “Let’s stay safe. Let’s also hope for a peaceful event.”

A person listed as an event organizer did not respond to a request for comment.

Arreguin urged residents to avoid the park Aug. 27. “The best way to silence white nationalists is by turning your back on their message,” he said.

And to the demonstrators, he said: “Anyone who threatens to engage in violence — and we have seen from earlier events that this is exactly their intent — will be arrested and punished to the fullest extent of the law.”

“We will not allow our community to be terrorized by a small band of white supremacists whose ideology of hate is a losing one,” Arreguin said. “Berkeley is proud of its multiculturalism and diversity, and we will continue to stand united against those who want to divide us.”

A conservative “Patriot Prayer” rally is scheduled for a day earlier, on Aug. 26, at San Francisco’s Crissy Field. A group of California lawmakers — all Democrats representing San Francisco — on Tuesday called for the National Park Service to rescind a permit issued for the event, concerned that it will attract people who will engage in violence.

The lawmakers — state Sen. Scott Wiener and Assemblymen David Chiu and Phil Ting — cited concern over clashes at the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, where Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal, was killed when a driver plowed a sports car into a crowd of anti-racist counter-protesters. The driver, James Alex Fields Jr., 20, of Ohio, was identified by authorities as a white supremacist, arrested and charged with murder and other crimes.

“Allowing a likely violent rally of White Supremacists so close to all of this is of deep concern to us,” the lawmakers wrote. “While we believe in the right to free speech and free assembly, we believe the National Park Service does not have the capacity to safely control this situation and therefore should not be issuing a permit for this rally at Crissy Field.”

The “Patriot Prayer” rally is being organized by blogger Joey Gibson, who says he condemns white supremacists. But white nationalists have spoken at and attended past rallies.

Gibson has railed against media outlets that have referred to his rally as racist, noting that speakers at the planned event include a black man and transgender woman.

There has been much debate about the line between free speech and public safety following violent protests in California and beyond.

The American Civil Liberties Union of California issued a statement Wednesday, saying that the organization didn’t believe the 1st Amendment protected “people who incite or engage in violence.”

“If white supremacists march into our towns armed to the teeth and with the intent to harm people, they are not engaging in activity protected by the United States Constitution,” the statement said. “The 1st Amendment should never be used as a shield or sword to justify violence.”

A scheduled appearance at UC Berkeley in February by far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was canceled amid a violent protest on the campus. That sparked a national debate — in which President Trump took part — about the balance between the right to demonstrate and protecting free speech that some find objectionable.

In March, seven people in Berkeley were injured as supporters of President Trump clashed with counter-protesters at a “March 4 Trump” rally at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park. Videos and photos showed people punching one another and pulling each other’s hair, with one man using an unidentified object to beat another person.

In April, hundreds of activists on the right and left converged in Berkeley at an event billed as a “Patriot’s Day” rally by conservatives. It was promoted on Facebook; organizers did not apply for a permit. Attendees were part of a spectrum of far-right groups, including members of the paramilitary group Oath Keepers from as far away as Missouri, followers of the Proud Boys and those with openly anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi slogans.

They were met by counter-demonstrators, including feminists, and those who identified with the group By Any Means Necessary and various anti-fascist organizations that have a stronghold in the Bay. Large numbers of demonstrators wearing black masks massed under the red-and-black flags associated with socialist ideology.

Before the event was set to begin, fists flew, people were left bloodied and 21 were arrested. Police confiscated an array of heavy sticks, knives and soda cans used as projectiles.

Days later, UC Berkeley officials canceled a planned speech by conservative commentator Ann Coulter, citing safety concerns over more protests. A day later they reversed themselves, offering Coulter a later date. Coulter ended up abandoning efforts to speak after the student groups who invited her on campus rescinded their invitations.

“I’m so sorry for free speech [being] crushed by thugs,” Coulter wrote on Twitter at the time. “It’s sickening when a radical thuggish institution like Berkeley can so easily snuff out the cherished American right to free speech.”

Meanwhile, conservative protesters scuttled plans to gather Saturday outside Google offices in nine cities, including the company’s Mountain View headquarters and offices in Venice, New York City, and Washington. Organizers said the march on Google stood for free speech and was inspired by James Damore, the Google engineer who was fired last week after posting a 10-page internal memo arguing that the lack of women in tech could be attributed to biological differences. The protesters said they were not white nationalists and vowed no violence.

A group called America First! plans to gather Sunday evening at Laguna Beach’s Main Beach to rally for victims of crimes that organizers say have been committed by immigrants illegally in the United States. Laguna Beach police Sgt. Jim Cota said three previous America First! events yielded no arrests, and the organizers are not affiliated with groups involved in Charlottesville.

Times staff writers Patrick McGreevy, Paige St. John, David Pierson and Paresh Dave contributed to this report, as did Times Community News reporter Bryce Alderton.

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UPDATES:

7:35 p.m.: This article was updated with background on other rallies and protests in California and a statement from the ACLU.

This article was originally published at 2:10 p.m.

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